(HOST) Seems like everybody’s talking about this winter’s odd weather these days, but Vermonters have always loved to talk about the weather – and commentator Howard Coffin says that it was a favorite topic in letters between soldiers fighting in the Civil War and loved ones at home.
(COFFIN) Just past the falling of the leaves in the mild Vermont autumn of 1862, the Second Vermont Brigade’s 4,000 brand new soldiers went south to the war zone. From northern Virginia Private George Benedict wrote home to Burlington of a “varied scene of meadow and timber, now glowing with the bright colors of the American autumn.”
Within a month, Lt. Charles Cumming informed his wife in Brattleboro, “Yesterday we had a regular Vermont snowstorm. It snowed all day and blew in fitful, driving gusts. The snow piled in drifts twelve to eighteen inches deep.” Private Benedict reported on camp life. “There is little suffering in this regiment. Not that a small tent soaked with moisture from damp snow is the most warm and cheerful habitation imaginable; but it can be closed tight enough to keep the snow from actual contact with the inmates, and by piling on what woolen clothing he has, in all shapes, a healthy man can keep up with the warmth of his body and by snuggling close to his comrades can sleep with some approach to comfort.”
The cold and snow cheered some Vermonters, perhaps reminding them of home. “Our camp is merry tonight,” a soldier wrote home to central Vermont. “Some of the boys are singing John Brown; some hymn tunes “
Just before Christmas in Vermont, almost no snow lay on the ground. Daniel Hammond in Brownsville, wrote to a son serving in the Second Vermont Brigade, “The house is warm as summer and I wish you all were here to enjoy the comforts. It gives me disagreeable feelings to think that thousands are standing and lying out of doors on this cold bleak night, with no shelter save for the canopy of heaven.”
The winter of 1862-63, one of the mildest in Vermont history, proved to be the most severe in the memory of Virginians. By February, hundreds of the Vermont soldiers were sick with colds, some with pneumonia. Most of them survived and in early May as daffodils blossomed and distant cannon announced the resumption of war, spring became summer along Bull Run and Occoquan Creek, the soldiers were writing of returning home by early July, when their nine months enlistments would end.
But before they again saw the Green Mountains, the Second Vermont Brigade marched one hundred twenty miles into Pennsylvania and launched an attack that lives in history, their devastating assault on the flank of the Civil War’s most famous assault, Pickett’s Charge. In the oppressive heat of a Mason-Dixon line summer, they had a lot to say about a new birth of freedom won on the shot-torn fields of Gettysburg.
By the way, in early February 2006, near where the Vermonters camped in snow one hundred forty-three years ago, I saw daffodils already in bloom.
I’m Howard Coffin of Montpelier.
Howard Coffin is an author and historian who’s specialty is the civil war.